Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Mainstream Media at its Finest....

In keeping with the philosophy of David "Don't Say Anything Bad About The Rich and Powerful" Brooks, the Washington Post offers an anonymously sourced article alleging that Michael Hastings, the author of the Rolling Stone profile on General McChrystal, broke "ground rules" by reporting comments that were supposed to have been off the record. No claim was made that the reporting was inaccurate.
On Friday, however, officials close to McChrystal began trying to salvage his reputation by asserting that the author, Michael Hastings, quoted the general and his staff in conversations that he was allowed to witness but not report.
Officials, plural, quickly becomes official, singular:
A senior military official insisted that "many of the sessions were off-the-record and intended to give [Hastings] a sense" of how the team operated. The command's own review of events, said the official, who was unwilling to speak on the record, found "no evidence to suggest" that any of the "salacious political quotes" in the article were made in situations in which ground rules permitted Hastings to use the material in his story.
A Rolling Stone executive editor, Eric Bates, gave an on-the-record statement under his own name denying the innuendo. It seems fair to ask, why exactly is it that the official who is alleging otherwise is unwilling to attach his name to his allegations? To quote the Post's own ombudsman,
Anonymity, granted judiciously, can benefit readers. Sources often require confidentiality to disclose corruption or policy blunders. On a lesser scale, stories can be enriched with information from sources who would suffer retribution if identified.

But by casually agreeing to conceal the identities of those who provide non-critical information, The Post erodes its credibility and perpetuates Washington's insidious culture of anonymity.
More specifically,
The Post's internal policies say: "We must strive to tell our readers as much as we can about why our unnamed sources deserve our confidence." That means offering enough description so readers can evaluate the quality of the source. Did they actually see or hear what took place? Do they have first-hand knowledge?
Standards that the Post once again failed to meet.

Leaving the quotes aside for the moment, if the purpose of allowing Hastings get a sense of how McChrystal's team operated, wouldn't the accurate reporting of the sense conveyed by the team's comments and conduct have resulted in the same outcome?
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Thursday that the atmosphere of disrespect for civilian leaders that McChrystal apparently tolerated and participated in was grounds for dismissal regardless of the context in which the offensive comments were made or who made them.
If I were to draw an inference it would be that McChrystal and his staff assumed that they were operating with a David Brooks-type reporter with Tim Russert-style ground rules - "My personal policy is always off the record when talking to government officials unless specified" - and found themselves dealing instead with an old school investigative reporter who took the traditional approach that, absent an agreement, anything said or done would be on the record and that his job was to accurately convey a what he observed even if it was at times unflattering to his subjects.

The "he broke ground rules" innuendo represents an attempt to distract readers from the substance of the story by suggesting that the messenger did something wrong in delivering it. "Don't kill the messenger", a cliché that dates back (at least) to Ancient Greece, highlights an inappropriate response to bad news from the front lines - yet here it is being anonymously invoked to shield a military leader from criticism. The Washington Post "broke" this thinly sourced story with the explicit suggestion that, truth aside, a conclusion by the general public that the General thought that the remarks were off the record might "salvage his reputation". We can expect that a number of pundits and commentators will work hard to advance that theme, picking up where the Post left off, their having internalized Brooks' position that embarrassing facts about powerful people should rarely if ever see the light of day.

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